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Page last updated at 15:02 GMT, Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Icarus hot enough for The Sun
The Sun in space
Robert's Icarus II balloon displays The Sun's front cover in space

An amateur high altitude balloon enthusiast from Leeds helped The Sun newspaper celebrate its 40th birthday, by sending its front page into space.

Robert Harrison used his ingenuity and easily available, cheap parts for his foray into space.

The balloon, named Icarus II, soared to an altitude of 120,000 feet and took an image of the newspaper's front page.

Robert, an IT Director for a patent agency, has spent less than £4000 on the ingenious project so far.

The Icarus project was started as a hobby by Robert in 2007. Prior to that he'd never picked up a soldering iron before and knew next to nothing about electronics.

Icarus II on its way to the heavens
Icarus II on its way to the heavens with its 1kg payload

It all started with the idea of taking aerial photos using a remote control helicopter, which turned out to be a non-starter and so Robert moved on to the notion of using a meteorological balloon like the ones used by weather centres.

Needing to control the path taken by the balloon, he used a standard GPS tracking device (similar to your average in-car Sat-Nav), linked to a radio transmitter, which allowed him to monitor the balloon's height to within 10 metres and make it easy to find once it's returned to earth.

The other part of the payload was a simple digital camera linked to computer software (obtained for free off the internet) on the ground. Both the camera and GPS device were wrapped in loft insulation obtained from a local DIY store and the whole thing weighs just 1kg.

The heat produced from these devices, together with the insulation, helps keep the temperature at about -20 degrees - just right for everything to be able to work.

The camera takes pictures on a five minute cycle and a computer on the ground receives a signal from Icarus and plots its course using Googlemaps, updating every 10 seconds, allowing Robert to know pretty much exactly where Icarus will land back on terra firma.

The balloon rises through the atmosphere and the higher it goes, the more the air pressure increases, causing the balloon to expand (most meteorological balloons can expand up to about forty five feet in diameter) and eventually the pressure cause the balloon to burst which sends it back to earth, cushioned by a parachute.

Icarus II's flight path
Icarus II's flight path across the Fens

Icarus can reach heights of 120,000 feet above the Earth - around four times the height of Mount Everest and way, way beyond the height at which commercial aircraft fly. The balloon has to contend with external temperatures of -55 degrees and ultra-violet radiation. All launches are conducted with Civil Aviation Authority approval under a NOTAM (Notice to Air Man).

Robert was contacted by The Sun newspaper who wanted a spectacular image to celebrate their 40th anniversary on Tuesday 17 November 2009. The paper printed a mock-up of their front cover and it was attached to the latest version of Robert's project, Icarus II.

Robert Harrison with the remains of Icarus II
Robert Harrison with the remains of Icarus II after its arduous journey

This isn't the end of the project though. Robert hopes to take it into schools as an outreach project for physics or electronics students as he says that with a bit of dedication and hard work, anyone can do what he's done. Indeed, there's a step-by-step guide on his website.

He's currently developing Icarus III, which will have pressure sensors and other improvements to investigate a phenomenon which causes balloons to float for several hours at night, as he hopes to complete an Atlantic crossing using the Jetstream.


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